MOSCOW -- Under pressure in the West and at home for military attacks that have taken a score of lives in the Baltic republics, the Kremlin is staging a tactical retreat from its hard-line stance of recent weeks.
Minister of Internal Affairs Boris K. Pugo made a major concession yesterday on the explosive issue of army-police patrols scheduled to begin tomorrow in some Soviet cities. He told the newspaper Rabochaya Tribuna that republican authorities could cancel the patrols if they felt the crime situation did not require military intervention.
Several republics, including the Russian Federation under Boris N. Yeltsin, have protested the patrol order as unconstitutional, unnecessary and dangerous. Mr. Pugo seemed to be saying that those republics could ignore the order if they chose.
In Vilnius, two convoys of Soviet troops were seen leaving the Lithuanian capital, although thousands of soldiers remain permanently based there as well as in Latvia and Estonia. Mr. Pugo said that all extra paratrooper units already had been withdrawn from the Baltic republics and that two-thirds of the internal troops deployed there this month were also gone.
Both of the shadowy "salvation committees" set up by Communist hard-liners in Lithuania and Latvia, allegedly with the approval of Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, have given up their proclaimed goal of seizing power and temporarily have ceased their activity.
The moves appear to back up the promise of a military withdrawal and the reopening of negotiations that was passed on Tuesday by Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander A. Bessmertnykh to President Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III.
Softening of the Kremlin position also is probably related to tomorrow's scheduled meeting of the Federation Council, which includes the leaders of the 15 republics, with Mr. Gorbachev.
The council last met hours before Soviet troops seized broadcast facilities in Vilnius Jan. 13, causing 14 deaths. Its members are likely to have tough questions for Mr. Gorbachev about that violence; about a subsequent rampage by troops in Riga, the Latvian capital, that left five dead; and about other Moscow actions not cleared with the supposedly sovereign republics.
Few reformist critics of President Gorbachev's recent aggressive policies believe the retreat represents a fundamental shift of policy. In the Baltic republics, which have more than once seen Moscow's promises evaporate, the response was cautious.
Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis was critical of what he considers the United States' exaggerated tolerance for Mr. Gorbachev's transgressions.
He repeated his comparison of Soviet aggression toward Lithuania with Iraqi aggression toward Kuwait, implying that the West should take an equally uncompromising stand against both aggressors.
"The promises of the leaders of the Soviet Union are often not kept, and the United States cannot be sure that these promises will be kept," he said.
"Soviet armed forces have not even left the buildings of the Lithuanian Republic that they have occupied," he said, referring to the republic's major publishing house, print shop and paper warehouse, radio and television facilities and a few other buildings that have been seized by force by Soviet troops.
"If the president of the United States could visit Lithuania for a while and follow the propaganda war against Lithuania and the other Baltic states, he would not say the Cold War is over," Mr. Landsbergis said.
But Mr. Landsbergis nonetheless said Tuesday night that the departure of some troops would be a sign that negotiations might be possible.
"If we receive signs that the military presence is being reduced, it would be a good signal for us for negotiations," he said.
Mr. Landsbergis, a musicologist often criticized for his lack of political tact and savvy, takes a far harsher public stance than do the leaders of Latvia and Estonia. Soviet officials have been suggesting that talks may be opened soon with Latvia and Estonia, but they have remained silent about Lithuania.
Yet the Lithuanian president's skepticism is based on recent, bitter experience. On Jan. 12, he responded warmly when Mr. Gorbachev dispatched a fact-finding delegation to the republic and told republican leaders that the military would hold off on using force until the delegation completed its work.
"This means that the Soviet leadership intends to return to normal, civilized ways of settling controversial problems," Mr. Landsbergis said at a news conference at the time. As his words were being broadcast around the world, however, tanks and paratroopers began their assault on the Vilnius television tower, shooting unarmed demonstrators and running over them with tanks.
The Lithuanians also have not forgotten that the additional paratroopers sent to the republic this month were officially charged with enforcing the Soviet military draft.
Instead, they first helped seize buildings claimed by the Soviet Communist Party, such as the publishing house. Then they took over Lithuanian government buildings.
As the troops were seen departing Vilnius yesterday, the 20th casualty of the recent violence died. Jonas Tautkas, 20, had been shot by a Soviet army patrol Monday night.
In a curious turnaround, Lithuania and Estonia have both announced plans for direct votes on independence, scheduled ahead of a Gorbachev-sponsored referendum on preserving the Soviet Union now set for March 17. Latvian President Anatolijs V. Gorbunovs has called for a similar vote in his republic.